Want to Get Signed by a Label? Listen Up

Having a business degree and having worked at record labels in the past, I get asked questions all of the time about all things music business related, and personally I love it.

I want to address tons of topics in this column, but one thing I always get asked by new students, music lovers and fans at clinics and trade shows is, “Dave, what would you recommend for a new artist coming up today who is trying to get out there and get discovered?”

When asked this, I usually want to hear a little bit more about the project from the person so I can best suit their advice needs, as everyone’s goals are a bit different.

Nine times out of 10 I hear something like, “I’ve been in a band for a while and we really love our sound and we are doing OK and getting some cool gigs here and there, but we just can’t seem to hit that next level, and we can’t stir up any real interest from label. What do you recommend? Facebook promotion? Touring?

I look at them and simply say, “Let me ask you this: Why would any record company want to put your music out?”

They usually look at me for a few seconds and 99 percent of the time come back with something like, “Well, man, because I think our music is really good. We are on to a new sound that is crazy, something no one is doing out there yet.”

I tell them, “Yeah, that’s awesome, but WHY would THEY want to put it out?"

This is the part of the conversation when they are usually trying to figure out what it is I want to hear. Then I tell them, “Look, they want to put music out that is going to make them money.”

They often look a little stunned as I proceed: “if you can show these companies how they are going to make money on your music, they are going to love your music; bottom line.”

I know that’s a stone cold harsh way of putting it and something us musicians don’t really want to think about when talking about our music, but if you can take the emotions out of it and put your businessman’s hat on for a second, then it’s pretty simple stuff.

Let’s say you send your demo tape to an A&R guy, (the person at the label who signs artists) and the person loves it.

This will be enough to get you in the door, but in order to land a record deal many other pieces of the puzzle need to be figured out.

Just like any business, record labels have to make money to stay afloat. And today especially that is insanely difficult to do with music piracy being as prevalent as it is.

Record company A&R guys even if they like your band very much; at the end of the day have to keep a job. And people who want to keep their job have to keep their boss upstairs happy. And bosses upstairs are happy when they look at that balance sheet at the end of the month and the company is making cash.

The cold fact is even if they love your music but they can’t see how their going to make money on it, they are going to slide your CD back to you and say “good luck with it, its not what were looking for right now”.

“Not what were looking for right now” is a nice way of saying, “this doesn’t seem like a sound investment, I can’t see profit here, this project is much to risky.”

Because the reality is they have 50 other bands. Why do they need you”?

You need to be able to show them why.

You need to be able to convince them that they need to be in business with you because your system works.

You’ve got to be able to say things like “I’ve sold 50,000 records worldwide on my own, I’ve done successful tours on my own, my merchandise sells like crazy, I’m doing it without your help.”

That’s what they look for.

I remember reading an interview with the A&R man at Roadrunner Records who signed the band Nickelback and he said he signed them because he showed up to the club that they were playing at and there were tons of people waiting in line in the rain to see them. Cha Ching!!!

That’s usually what it all comes down to. Unless you are just so insanely good that you knock their head off and they don’t care that you don’t have an existing presence in the marketplace; but I’ll just tell you, this rarely ever happens especially today.

You need to prove that you can sell records, create fans, can sell tickets and can be a promotional force to be reckoned with.

They also want to see if your music is unique enough, special enough, or just plain good enough to sell itself.

Because word of mouth is the most effective and cheapest advertising that there is. And as marketing budgets are not what they used to be, they need bands that can explode with as little promotion as possible. Because you guessed it, promotion costs big money.

And here is the secret that you should know. If you have all of these things going for you; then you probably don’t even need them.

More on this stuff later. Thanks for reading!

Dave Reffett is a Berklee College of Music graduate and has worked with some of the best players in rock and metal. He is an instructor at (and the head of) the Hard Rock and Heavy Metal department at The Real School of Music in the metro Boston area. He also is a master clinician and a highly-in-demand private guitar teacher. He teaches lessons in person and worldwide via Skype. As an artist and performer, he is working on some soon-to-be revealed high-profile projects with A-list players in rock and metal. In 2009, he formed the musical project Shredding The Envelope and released the critically acclaimed album The Call Of The Flames. Dave also is an official artist endorsee for companies like Seymour Duncan, Gibson, Eminence and Esoterik Guitars, which in 2011 released a Dave Reffett signature model guitar, the DR-1. Dave has worked in the past at Sanctuary Records and Virgin Records, where he promoting acts like The Rolling Stones, Janet Jackson, Korn and Meat Loaf.

Dave Reffett headshot photo by Yolanda Sutherland

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